Regardless of which feeding approach you choose, purees or baby led weaning, introducing iron foods from the start is extremely important. Here are the best iron-rich foods and recipes for babies and toddlers.
Why do babies need iron?
Iron is essential for producing red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. It’s also important for optimal brain development.
Iron is also one of the primary reasons that we start solids when we do. Babies are born with iron stores built up during their time in the womb. And this is why moms need to maintain a healthy iron status during pregnancy.
But by 6 months of age, it becomes depleted. At the same time, their iron needs increase drastically to support their rapid growth and development.
Inadequate iron intake in infanthood and childhood can lead to cognitive, including decreased attention and memory, as well as behavioral impairment, such as delayed attention, social withdrawal, and learning difficulties.
How much iron does a baby and toddler need?
- Birth-6 months: .25mg
- 7-12 months: 11 mg
- 1-3 years: 7 mg. While there’s so much focus on iron for babies, toddlers deserve the same degree of attention. Research shows that this age group have the lowest daily iron intake of any age group across the lifespan.
Signs of iron deficiency
- fatigue, weakness
- slow weight gain
- pale skin
- irritability (cranky, fussy)
- shortness of breath
- cold hands or feet
- no appetite
- For toddlers: difficulty in concentration, shorter attention span
Does your baby need an iron supplement?
As you can see, the recommended intake is really high relative to how much food they’re likely to eat. If you’ve decided to do baby led weaning, you may be especially concerned as not much food will actually make it into your baby’s belly during the first days, weeks of starting solids.
You may have also heard that if you are breastfeeding, you must supplement.
It is true that breastmilk is low in iron. However, its bioavailability is very high (around 50%), meaning it is easily absorbed and utilized by the body. Formula is also fortified with enough iron to support your baby’s growth and development until 12 months.
As long as you’re offering an iron-rich source at every meal along with breastmilk and/or formula, your baby will likely continue to meet their needs as they wean. It is not like once your baby hits 6 months, their iron reserve is completely depleted. It’s a gradual process.
However, it’s always best to consult with your healthcare provider, especially if your baby is not developmentally ready to start solids at around 6 months. Grab my FREE handout by joining below to ensure that you start at the optimal time which requires watching your baby NOT the calendar.
Routinely, hemoglobin levels are checked starting at 12 months, usually. But you can always ask to have it checked earlier and supplement accordingly.
What you don’t want to do is automatically supplement on your own as it can cause more harm than good, if not necessary.
The same goes for toddlers. If they’ve become really fussy and rejects most or all iron-rich foods, then bring this up to your doctor.
Which babies are at risk?
Supplementation is most likely necessary if your baby was:
- Born prematurely – this is because babies get the majority of their iron stores from their mother during the last trimester of pregnancy.
- Had a birthweight of less than 6.5 pounds
- Born to mothers with poorly controlled diabetes.
- Babies who are fed cow’s milk instead of breastmilk or iron-fortified formula during the first year of life. This is the greatest dietary risk factor and should be avoided at all cost!
Can vegetarian babies get enough iron?
Facts: Iron from heme found in animal sources is absorbed better than iron from non-heme or plant sources. There are also many compounds found in plant foods, such as phytates and tannins, that reduce iron absorption.
Therefore, the recommended dietary intake for iron for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for meat eaters.
Knowing this, If your family is a vegetarian, you may be concerned that your baby is at an even greater risk for iron deficiency. However, the good news is there are so many great food sources, and with some planning, plant-based diets can be adequate in iron. Continue reading more for tips to enhance absorption.
Best iron-rich foods
- Red meat (beef, lamb, pork, venison. Liver and other organ meats will contain the highest)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Seafood (salmon, sardines)
Non heme sources:
- Beans (particularly white, chickpeas, kidney beans)
- Nuts and seeds (particularly almonds, cashews, pine nuts, hemp, flax, sesame, and pumpkin seeds)
- Dark leafy greens
- Whole grains – (particularly amaranth, spelt, oats, and quinoa)
- Fortified cereals – while pre-packaged baby food is not necessary, they are convenient and can help meet iron needs.
Vegetables highest in iron
- Dark leafy greens – Dandelion, swiss chard, collard, kale, spinach, beet greens
- Baked potato
- Tomato paste – raw tomatoes contain very little iron. But when dried or concentrated, they are a great source!
Fruits highest in iron
Generally, fruits are not good sources. These are the top choices:
- Prune juice
- Dried fruits (particularly apricots, dates, figs, raisins)
But a lot of fruits contain vitamin C, which will aid in iron absoprtion.
Should rice cereal be a baby’s first food
Perhaps you were recommended by your doctor, family, or friends to start with iron-fortified rice cereal. This is outdated advice. While it is suitable, your baby does NOT need to start with rice cereal.
It’s also high in arsenic, which you want to try to limit as much as possible. That’s not to say you shouldn’t give your baby rice at all, as it is a main staple in so many cultures, but you do want to be mindful. There are plenty of other iron rich foods as listed here that you can offer to help meet your baby’s needs
Tips to help increase baby’s iron level
- Be sure to include an iron-rich food at every meal! This is your top priority
- Combine with vitamin-C rich foods
- It’s true that calcium inhibits the absorption of iron, but please don’t obsess and go out of your way to make sure you absolutely don’t serve calcium-containing foods with iron-rich foods. There are so many factors that affect iron absorption. Calcium is just one of them. What I do recommend is to not serve both at every single meal.
- The number one thing you can do to ensure your child is absorbing iron is to serve a varied diet! That way your baby is exposed to a wide variety of flavors and textures while ensuring no one potential inhibitor can have a large effect on iron absorption.
- Please don’t start calculating and keeping track of how much your baby is getting daily. Nor stressing about what inhibits iron and what doesn’t. This will just drive you crazy and lead to lots of anxieties and worries, especially if you are doing baby led weaning and following your baby’s lead. What I encourage you to do, once again, is focus on including an iron-rich food at every meal.
- For toddlers, don’t serve too much milk
- Use a cast iron pan: cooking foods in cast iron cookware may increase the iron content of meals by up to 16%
Best Vitamin C Rich foods
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
Baby Led Feeding Journey
All the images of baby plates you see in this post are exactly what I served my daughter during our first three months of starting solids. From speaking to hundreds of parents and caregivers, it was clear that the greatest challenge is how to ensure their baby is getting optimal nutrition while trying to juggle everything and get through the day.
Figuring out what foods to serve first, how to prepare foods so they are safe and won’t cause choking, how to introduce allergens and a wide variety of foods, how to adapt family meals so they don’t spend hours slaving away in the kitchen making two separate meals every day….and on and on.
It can feel so overwhelming and frustrating. And that’s why I created my 3 month program – Baby Led Feeding Journey.
I filmed everything in real time for 3 months so you get to SEE exactly What and How to feed your baby from Day 1 all the way to Day 84. If you are spending countless hours searching online for information, recipes and trying to piece everything together while questioning all the decisions you’ve made, you are not alone.
I’m here to hand you a complete roadmap. Everything all in one place.
There’s SO much this program offers but don’t take my word for it. You can find out more here as well as hear from other moms who’ve gone through it.
If feeding your baby feels like a burden and you’re in complete survival mode, hold my hand! I am here to breathe joy and confidence into your mealtimes.
Do you want to minimize picky eating and set a solid foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating habits?
Check out this 3 month mastering self-feeding program! It’s the closest thing to me being in your kitchen